12.10.2010 - 15.10.2010
In the past when I’ve been a member of a pub quiz team, I’ve waited with frustrated anticipation for a question that runs along the lines of ‘What is the connection between Ben Hur and Billy The Kid’? I’ve convinced myself that I’ll be the only person in the room who knew the answer and would win the game on the back of it. Alas, it never happened.
This is a roundabout way of introducing you to Antakya, Antioch of the classical world and possibly the first place where the term ‘Christian’ was heard. Founded by one of Alexander's generals, Antioch soon became a major trading route of the Silk Road; it also built itself a reputation for...excess. So much so, that St Peter himself (obviously before being sainted) chose Antioch as the site of one of the world's first Christian communities.
Under the Romans, Antioch continued to prosper (and this is where people should start paying attention to Ben and Billy) and it was only with the rise of Constantinople that the city went into a decline. The Crusaders rampaged through here, capturing the city and slaughtering the defenders in 1098, but the Mamlukes of Egypt recaptured Antioch almost 200 years later.
Although little remains of the Roman period in modern Antakya, a trip to the archaeological museum will satisfy any Romanophiles thirst for knowledge, as the museum has some fine mosaics and statues recovered from the city and outlying areas. Conveniently, the city is neatly divided by the River Asi: whatever it looked like a thousand years ago, today it is a sluggish, muddy green colour, fished by a couple of anglers, more in hope than anticipation I fear, and home to many of the town’s discarded plastic bottles.
Hurriyet Cadessi, where many of the hotels, restaurants, a couple of excellent juice counters and a hole in the wall bar, where I was made very welcome, are based, seems to be undergoing major, permanent subsidence and consequent repair, the air is full of dust and the heavy traffic adds to the air pollution. The east bank of the river also houses the bazaar or perhaps more accurately, souk, which is certainly worth getting lost in for a few hours, as you never know what you might find!
Tahir Shah is an author who now lives in Casablanca and he has a failsafe way of working out whether a market is a tourist trap or somewhere for locals, that tourists simply turn up at. If the market has stalls selling underpants, its authentic, if not, it's a means of parting travellers from their cash. Antakya bazaar has underpants stalls aplenty, so easily passes the Shah Test, which is good enough for me.
Being part of The Hatay (an artificial concoction of Ataturk's), the city has an Arab feel to it and that is reflected in both language and food. Most people's first language is Arabic and that can be heard on the streets and read on the walls and I found the food spicier and richer than other parts of Turkey.
A visit to the Syriac Orthodox Church
This church was just down the road from where I was staying and I went early in the day but was told to come back at 5pm. I thought this was unusual but didn’t give it much thought; but when I was passing at 4pm a tour group was just leaving, so I thought I’d take advantage of the open gates. I was told if I was quick I could come in. This was certainly odd behaviour as the churches and mosques throughout my trip bend over backwards to welcome visitors. I was then asked where the rest of my group was. When I explained I was by myself everything changed and I was welcomed with open arms.
My guide, Isaac, explained what was going on. A few months ago, a Catholic Bishop was murdered by his Turkish driver in Iskenedrun (so much for being laid back!) and since then, visitors to the church have been vetted, more so if they are in groups. As Isaac explained, the church didn’t want any trouble from their Muslim neighbours and was trying to keep a low profile, hence the increased security.
The moment Isaac mentioned this murder, I remembered the case, so it was little surprise that there was genuine concern. The motive for the killing of Luigi Padovese, apostolic vicar for Anatolia, remains unclear, but it has put the small group of Christians who live in this part of Turkey very much on their guard.
For some reason I had supposed this was a Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox church, but it was actually Syrian (or more accurately now, Syriac since 2000) and it’s Bishopric was in Damascus and not Constantinople (as Isaac refereed to Istanbul. He also called Antakya, Antioch). The service continues to be in Aramaic, the language of Christ and the priest who serves a diminishing and ageing congregation, is himself 85.
Isaac no longer lives in Antakya, but in Sydney, where he operates a Portuguese Fast Food franchise (!) and has done so for the past decade. His parents continue to live in the town and Isaac tries to come home for a month every year. He explained that the local community has become scattered in the past six decades, although he remained cautious about putting forward a reason for this diaspora. It seems caution has become default attitude of these Christians.
Isaac thought the church itself was 200 – 220 years old and only had a full congregation during the winter months, as during the summer many people left for extended holidays with their ex pat families. It was a building that held echoes of loss, for what was but never could be again. I was reminded of my visit to Aya Sofia in Istanbul, where I left feeling that the people who built this place were geniuses, but it was a building that no longer had a reason to be, apart from to be admired. The church in Antakya still functioned as a church, so continued to fulfil its purpose as a place of worship; perhaps not in the numbers they once did, or in the safety they once did, but they persevere.
As to the answer to the connection between Ben Hur and Billy the Kid, I’ll leave you to work that out. If you want a clue, look to a Union general during the American Civil War...